Patagonia’s documentary film DamNation is now available for streaming on Netflix. I first saw this film last summer and I have to say it is very well done and a must see for anglers. I think the film hits home with me because dams are a big part of our history here in Montana. Not just the big, hydro-electric, job-making dams that we commonly about, but also the harmful, fish-killing dams, whose sole purpose is to fund other polluting activities that are detrimental to wild species.
In 2008, the Milltown Dam on the Clark Fork River, near Missoula, was removed, making Montana home to the largest Superfund Site in the United States. The dam was originally created in the early 1900’s to produce hydroelectricity to fuel a nearby sawmill in Bonner, which cut timber for mine shafts being built in Butte, Montana. Ironically, the dam would eventually hold millions of cubic yards of toxic sediment that it helped produce. Approximately 300,000 tons of toxic sediment was removed from behind the dam between 2008 and 2012.
When the project was finished in 2013, the public was finally allowed to float down a section of the Clark Fork that had been flooded for over a hundred years. I was fortunate enough to be on one of the first rafts to (legally) float down the newly reopened section of river. The fishing was amazing. Dries, nymphs, streamers, they ate everything. Fisheries experts agree that the fishing on the Clark Fork will only improve with time, and has the potential to become a world class trout fishery. Talk to anyone who fishes the upper Clark Fork and they will tell you how much better it is today than just a few years ago.
My dad was born in Missoula, Montana, and lived there until he was about eight years old when he and his family moved upstream to Butte. He spoke at the ceremony the day the river was opened to the public, and in his speech he recalled what the Clark Fork was like when he was a kid. “I remember asking my dad why the river was orange,” he said. The reason was that during the spring runoff in high water years, massive amounts of the rust-colored sediment that had been building up behind the dam for years would finally overflow and dump into the river, causing the river to run a solid orange color and killing thousands of trout in the process. Getting rid of the Milltown Dam, and thus protecting a fishery that is home to Native Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat, as well as Browns and Rainbows, was a milestone in Montana’s state history. It represented the mistakes of our ancestors, who, at the expense of future generations, recklessly polluted the streams that we today cherish and put at risk native populations of wild trout, on their way to creating “the Richest Hill on Earth”.
The film DamNation talks about a different kind of dam; rather than holding toxic mine tailings from entering the river below, this dam is holding back wild fish from reaching their spawning grounds. It argues that these dams are the single biggest detriment to the survival of wild steelhead and salmon in the Pacific Northwest. It touches on the debate of the environment and fish vs. energy and jobs, as well as the wild vs. hatchery fish debate (Montana, by the way, was the first state in the lower 48 to stop stocking its rivers and streams with hatchery trout). These can be heated subjects, for sure, but I think the film makes a very persuasive fish-first argument.
One point that I would like to make very clear is that this film does not support the removal all dams. David Montgomery, Professor at the University of Washington, offers his insight in the film:
“Like all constructed things, dams have a finite lifetime. It’s not time to pull out every dam in the country. That would be economically foolish. But it would be just as foolish not to rethink every dam in the country and try and decide which are the ones that actually still make sense in the 21st century, and which are those that we can get more value, both economically, culturally, aesthetically, morally, and ecologically out of a river system by sending it partway back to a state that it was in naturally.”
Amazing film, the best documentary I’ve seen in at least a year. Grab a pizza and a six-pack this weekend and checkout DamNation, you won’t be disappointed!
Watch the DamNation Trailer here.